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Late Playwright, August Wilson, Nominated For Academy Awards For 'Fences'

LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:

With the award season firmly underway, one movie getting a lot of buzz is "Fences" which stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as Troy and Rose Maxson, a working-class couple in 1950s-era Pittsburgh. "Fences" is nominated for four Academy Awards. The ceremony takes place in just two weeks.

One of "Fences" Oscar nominations is a little unusual because it would go to the playwright August Wilson who died in 2005. August Wilson adapted his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play into the screenplay that's now up for an Academy Award. And if it gets the Oscar, his wife of nearly 30 years, Constanza Romero Wilson would accept the award on his behalf. "Fences" is the first of August Wilson's award-winning plays to be turned into a major film, in large part due to Mrs. Romero Wilson. And she joins us now from member station KUOW in Seattle. Constanza, thanks for being here.

CONSTANZA ROMERO WILSON: Thanks for having me.

SINGH: So what do you think about all of these awards? Already we know of two SAG Awards, a Golden Globe, a Critic Choice. How are you absorbing all this recognition?

ROMERO WILSON: I am just having the time of my life right now. I'm overjoyed, overwhelmed, just over the moon as well. I think that August gave us such a wealth of humanity. In every single one of his plays is a whole cosmology of human emotions and people relating to themselves and to the gods.

So to have so many people come and see the movie "Fences" is extraordinary because now, as Denzel Washington said, the party and his words belong to everyone. There have been more people coming to see the movie than there ever were to go see his Broadway plays, so I am just so proud of him.

SINGH: One of the things that I've heard frequently is that August Wilson's respect for the word is a great part of the reason why his work has resonated, has been so powerful with audiences.

ROMERO WILSON: That's correct. Some people may say that this movie is word-heavy but I think that the power of words is something that we sometimes forget. When people come in to see "Fences," they think of Viola Davis and Denzel Washington. They want to see those stars, but I think that when they come out, they say, oh, my God, that writing was exceptional. And I think it's because of the poetry and the musicality and because August's voice is unique.

SINGH: And, Constanza, I want to give our audience an opportunity to really feel what we're talking about, the death and the importance of the word.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FENCES")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Troy) When I first met this woman, I got out that place, say, hitch up my pony, saddled up my mare, there's a woman out there for me somewhere. I looked here. I looked there. I saw Rose, and I latched on to her. Rose told me - tell them what you told me, Rose.

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Rose) I told him if he wasn't the marrying kind, then move out the way so the marrying kind could find me.

WASHINGTON: (As Troy) That's what she told me. You in my way. You're blocking the view. Move out the way so I can find me a husband. I thought it over two or three days coming back...

DAVIS: (As Rose) Wasn't no two or three nothing. You was back the same night.

WASHINGTON: (As Troy) Come back, told her, OK, baby, but I'ma buy me a banty rooster and put him out there in the backyard and when he see a stranger come, he gon' flap his wings and crow...

SINGH: Can you share with us what was it about August Wilson that you think most people don't really know, don't really get, and yet they probably see it in his work over and over and over again?

ROMERO WILSON: He really saw so many things that were to come, so many things that were before. That's why his work continues to be so important and so alive even right now in 2017 as he's been gone now 11 years. In one of his plays just before Obama was to sort of come into the foreground of the news, he had an African-American running for mayor in his last play which sort of mirrors the trajectory of President Obama.

SINGH: I'm glad you brought that up because I was thinking, you know, given the political environment, I'd wondered if you felt that "Fences" had special relevance today than ever before.

ROMERO WILSON: Oh, I completely and 100 percent agree with you. I think that it is so timely right now on so many levels. First and foremost, Troy's story is a story of someone who was born with a lot of opportunities to succeed, you know, his ability to be a great baseball player, a very smart person, a storyteller, basically a winner. And because he was born before the time that black players were able to join the National Leagues, he was never able to reach the potential that he was born with. And I think that right now we're facing very similar circumstances where not a lot of people are able to have mobility, have the opportunities, have their talents be tapped into.

SINGH: "Fences" is - it's just one of several plays that August Wilson wrote about working-class African-American families in Pittsburgh, and he could have written these about anywhere, you know...

ROMERO WILSON: Yes.

SINGH: ...But why do you think it was so important for him to focus on Pittsburgh?

ROMERO WILSON: It was the world he knew. The story may be focused on the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1957, but it reaches deep down into our hearts and brings out all kinds of emotions. August had a famous story of a Polish man following him out of "Fences" when it was on Broadway. And the Polish man said Mr. Wilson, Mr. Wilson, how did you know my father? (Laughter).

SINGH: Yeah.

ROMERO WILSON: So it reaches down to that universal place within us.

SINGH: So my colleague, Michel Martin, for whom I'm filling in, she spoke with the director and star of "Fences" Denzel Washington in December...

ROMERO WILSON: Yes.

SINGH: ...And he said he was planning on turning August Wilson's other plays into movies. And it's all because of you. So how did you decide that Denzel was the right person for this that you could actually trust your husband's work in the hands of Denzel Washington?

ROMERO WILSON: Well, I think that he is one of the most intelligent actors I have ever worked with, you know, in relation to August's plays. This happened after he played Troy Maxson on Broadway for the revival in 2010. He did such a good job with that play, and I knew that he was somebody who also got things done which is important. You know, things happen very slowly at times in Hollywood, and I just wanted to really reach the full potential of all these plays. And after seeing his work on "Fences," I know that I made the right choice.

SINGH: I bet you're excited to see what becomes of the Oscars. It's only a couple of weeks away. Have you thought about what you actually want to say in an acceptance speech if it goes in that direction?

ROMERO WILSON: Yes, I have. I couldn't do it otherwise because I am not a performer. I was never supposed to sit or stand behind a microphone, so I'm definitely going to prepare.

SINGH: What are some of the things that you hope you would want to share with the audience?

ROMERO WILSON: The beauty and the legacy that August left us with is so rich and so remarkable. If somebody finds the movie "Fences" extraordinary, I would love that person to go and read the play. And, you know, if they find the play amazing, then go read all 10 of the American Century Cycle.

SINGH: That is Constanza Romero Wilson sharing her thoughts on her late husband's play-turn-Oscar-nominated-film "Fences." She joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Constanza, thank you so much for spending time with us.

ROMERO WILSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.